Shared information bias is the tendency of groups to spend time and energy discussing information that most group members already know. Consequently they have less time and energy to devote to information that only a few members know [Forsyth 2010]. This bias in the way the group invests its resources leads to misalignment between reality and the group's perceptions, and eventually to bad decisions.
For example, in discussing possible solutions to a technical problem, the portion of the discussion devoted to information that most group members already know will tend to be disproportionately large, in terms of importance, compared to the portion of the discussion regarding technical subtleties known only to the few group members with relevant expertise. In part, this happens because the number of people who are familiar with the commonly shared information is greater than the number of people who are familiar with the less commonly shared information. But research suggests that the shared information bias is greater than mere numbers would predict.
Although bad decisions are the most commonly cited effect of shared information bias, the damage it causes transcends the substance of the immediate decision at hand. That's why it's important to consider other effects of the bias, to motivate groups to address shared information bias with the attention it deserves.
Here, in Part I of this exploration, are four ways shared information bias harms group processes.
- Members experience a false sense of comfort and well being
- Repeated Shared information bias leads to
misalignment between reality and
the group's perceptions, and
eventually to bad decisionsexperiences of discussions that fail to challenge group members' beliefs and preconceptions can enhance their sense of comfort and well being, however false it might be. This misapprehension of the group's actual state can expose it to great risk of chaos if it encounters a situation to which it has been rendered vulnerable by this false sense of security.
- Enhanced likelihood of groupthink
- Groupthink is a group-psychological dynamic that causes the group to converge on an outcome not on the basis of the tenets to which the group claims it subscribes, but instead as a means of achieving group harmony and conformity. The probability of an irrational and dysfunctional outcome is thus elevated. When groupthink is in effect, the group tries to minimize conflict and reach consensus, even at the cost of abandoning critical thinking, suppressing alternative viewpoints, and preventing access to external influence. Shared information bias thus facilitates groupthink by providing a false sense of comfort and well being and a variety of contributions that are consistent with the views and preconceptions of group members. For more about groupthink, see "Design Errors and Groupthink," Point Lookout for April 16, 2014.
- Biased assessments of importance
- In groups, especially in real or virtual meetings, a commonly used heuristic for assessing the importance of an idea or insight is group members' sense of the number of times it arises in discussion. People don't actually count occurrences; a subjective sense seems to be sufficient. If the group is experiencing a shared information bias, that bias skews the subjective sense of the frequency of mentions of ideas. The group members then tend to assess the importance of frequently cited ideas as greater than they might actually be. And that can skew the discussion away from directions that might reveal insights and perspective far more important than anything discussed so far.
- Increased persistence of wrong beliefs
- If someone withholds an incorrect opinion, misinformation, or misapprehension, that they themselves have accepted, it's less likely to be refuted by another group member who knows that the withheld contribution is incorrect, misinformed, or confused, but who doesn't know that any group members subscribe to it. And the longer the confusion remains in the mind of the holder, the longer it's available in that person's mind to discredit truthful beliefs and accurate perceptions.
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- The Focusing Illusion in Organizations
- The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility
in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking"
was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations.
Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: II
- Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use
are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive
- The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we
tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable.
- Effects of Shared Information Bias: II
- Shared information bias is widely recognized as a cause of bad decisions. But over time, it can also
erode a group's ability to assess reality accurately. That can lead to a widening gap between reality
and the group's perceptions of reality.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.